Arts & Entertainment

Building a Virtual Library

During the COVID-19 closure, ImagineIF Libraries has shifted its lineup of unique activities and content for all ages online while expanding digital collections

ImagineIF Libraries has over 30,000 cardholders, welcomes thousands of visitors through its doors each week and circulates half a million items each year. When the library system closed in March due to COVID-19, officials suddenly had to find new ways to reach all those people.

Thanks to nimbly creative leadership and staff, ImagineIF has built a robust virtual infrastructure that includes regular video events and activities, expanded digital material collections and an adept online outreach effort, all of which further showcases the library system’s commitment to its mission of serving and educating the community.

“We basically built a virtual storefront,” ImagineIF Executive Director Connie Behe said.

Before the pandemic, the library served as a community hub for education and activity opportunities, especially for families with young children. Its popular early-childhood events such as Books and Babies and Preschool Storytime draw crowds each week, and it also has a lineup of teen and adult programs.

Seeking a “continuity of service through the crisis,” as Behe described it, library staff members record programs, each one unique, in their homes and post the videos online, while offering a variety of other online services. People can follow ImagineIF on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn, and have notices pushed out to stay up to date with program offerings.

The library has also built a landing page on its website, showcasing virtual event schedules, links to activities such as free art classes and digital resources for a variety of ages, an online library card signup and access to digital collections such as e-books and audiobooks, with plans to add streaming movies and services this week.

Children programs include virtual early literacy classes in which library staff share stories, songs and art and science projects that kids and parents can do at home.

“Whether you’re tapping your foot or whipping up a batch of slime, these videos are sure to bust the social isolation blues and equip caregivers with the tools to help their child learn,” the description states.

The interactive “Virtual Early Explorers” program teaches participants fun techniques for using books, songs and rhymes at home. There is also a “Virtual Teen Zone” geared toward kids in sixth grade or above.

“Whether you’re looking for ways to destress, create art, or connect with your friends during social isolation, we’ve got you covered,” the teen zone’s description states.

For adults, weekly trivia on Monday night on Facebook Live has proven to be extremely popular.

While the quality of the programming suggests a seamless shift, Behe said it was a difficult transition that required innovation on the go and long hours.

“We have been busier than ever building this virtual branch behind the scenes,” she said.

ImagineIF has donated boxes of books and materials to an emergency homeless shelter recently established in Kalispell. Behe said last week the library was also working with the Agency on Aging and My Glacier Village to distribute books to local seniors.

“A big barrier to lifelong learning and access to materials is being isolated,” Behe said. “Right now we have a lot of social isolation.”

As part of the library’s efforts to break down those barriers, staff is available by phone or email Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone calls are important for community members who are less tech savvy and have questions, and others who simply know of the library as a community resource and want to reach out for any number of reasons.

“They can still call us, and we will lend an ear,” Behe said. “A large part of what we do is just talk to people.”

In response to Gov. Steve Bullock’s phased reopening, ImagineIF will begin offering curbside pickup on May 4 while it retrofits its facilities in preparation for safely reopening to the public later.

Library customers are encouraged to keep any currently checked-out materials until June 1 to avoid flooding book drops with returns. The library will ensure that customers do not accrue fees for materials during this time.

To get in touch with a librarian, email asklib@imagineiflibraries.org or call (406) 758-5820. For more information, visit www.imagineiflibraries.org or check in with ImagineIF’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.